Huge crowds of pilgrims on Saturday marked the “Holy Fire” ceremony at Christianity’s holiest site in Jerusalem’s Old City on the eve of Orthodox Easter.
Some 10,000 Christians holding candles squeezed into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said.
Thousands more crammed the square outside and surrounding streets to receive the flame, representing the resurrection of Christ, which passed from candle to candle and will be taken back to Orthodox churches worldwide.
In Athens, a lantern carrying the flame was welcomed to Greece with honors reserved for visiting heads of state on the eve of Orthodox Easter, but a senior cleric boycotted the ceremony, miffed that the holy flame flew into a military airport instead of Athens International Airport, which is within his territorial jurisdiction.
The ceremony at the church — built on the site where according to Christian tradition Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected — is the holiest event for Orthodox Christianity.
During the annual ceremony dating back at least 1,200 years, top Eastern Orthodox clerics enter the Edicule, the small chamber marking the site of Jesus’s tomb.
They then emerge to reveal candles said to be miraculously lit with “holy fire” as a message to the faithful from heaven. The details of the flame’s source are a closely guarded secret.
Orthodox Christians will celebrate Easter on Sunday.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the rest of the Old City lies in East Jerusalem, captured by Israel from its Jordanian occupiers in the Six Day War of 1967 and later annexed by Israel.
The Greek Orthodox, Armenian and Roman Catholic denominations share custody of the church.
Christians made up more than 18 percent of the population of the Holy Land when Israel was founded in 1948, but now form less than two percent, mostly Orthodox.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.